Becoming a plumber or heating engineer

As you embark on training to become a plumber, you must think about what a plumber does and how you might fit in.

Let’s start with the obvious: plumbers install pipes to carry water and any fittings that use water (bathrooms, kitchen sinks and so on). This part of the job is obvious because we take these items for granted every day. Plumbers / heating engineers also keep homes and business premises warm, installing and maintaining heating and hot water systems. But there is much more to the role than these day-to-day concerns.

Protecting public health

Water is precious and, at times, dangerous. It requires legislation to ensure it is neither wasted nor becomes a hazard. Therefore, fundamentally, a plumber has a vital role in ensuring the safety and health of the public. This is done by protecting water so it’s fit for human consumption and safe to use when heated. Heating of a building is not just to keep the occupants dry and warm, but to maintain the building itself. Cold, damp buildings create health issues such as respiratory problems, allergies and asthma associated with mould and condensation, not to mention mental health problems caused by living in such an environment.

Humans must have clean water to drink and bathe in; without this, illness and even fatalities follow. This is clearly demonstrated by recent natural disasters such as flooding around the world: after a flood, life hangs in the balance because water and drainage systems are overflowing and all water is contaminated, leaving the population to suffer from disease. Thankfully weather patterns on this scale have not hit the UK, but the Thames Estuary did flood and contaminate areas of London in 2014.

A range of skills

The plumber learns new skills and knowledge each and every day. No two sites are the same, so the work is varied, challenging and rewarding.

Just think about the range of buildings that have some kind of plumbing and heating system. Office blocks, motorway services, hospitals, schools, airports, shops, pubs, football stadia, houses, care homes, and supermarkets to name just a few.

The list is vast and this is why the plumbing and heating sectors need adequately trained and experienced professionals.

Plumbers might work with water, gas, oil, compressed air, air conditioning, sanitation systems as well as associated electrical components used in systems such as central heating or a shower for the bathroom.

Getting involved

You might try out a course at a local college, which are generally three days per week. As well as learning practical skills, you’ll be working towards continuous improvement in maths and English. These subjects are very important. All aspects of plumbing and heating require calculations to get the design right – remember, no two sites are alike. Excellent English is required because good communication is critical when you’re dealing with customers, trying to explain the work required, and dealing with financial and marketing aspects of your business.

So what can you expect from the work itself, including your time learning on the job? In a lot of cases the work is physical but not always. The working day might not finish at a set time. If, for instance, you have to get the water back on, or a toilet or boiler working, it doesn’t just stop because it’s 5pm. Some jobs will mean you have to start very early to get to the location or work in buildings when everyone else has gone because they need to use the facilities during the day. Therefore working on a weekend or evenings is not unheard of.

The work of a plumber/heating engineer generally falls into a few broad categories:

1. Domestic work/private

2. Refurbishment work/private

3. Public sector work

4. Commercial work

In any of the above you might be carrying out new, retro-fit or maintenance work. Each field is huge and some specialise in certain aspects, such as a gas engineer or bathroom fitter.

Apprenticeships

To get involved in installation and maintenance, it’s best to get an apprenticeship with a reputable employer. There is an abundance of information on the internet or at your training centre. If you know anyone in a related trade, now’s the time to ask them about relevant opportunities.

Apprenticeships last four years and enable you to become qualified to level three. You will get a wage as you learn and each year your wage will increase based upon your hard work and the ability to prove yourself.

When you’ve completed this initial period, you will have gained experience and confidence. The employer will want to see you use this to help grow the business and its reputation.

Alternative paths

Working on the tools isn’t the only way to start a career in plumbing. You can opt to go to university and study level 4, 5, or 6 to become a public health engineer who deals with designing systems mainly in large-scale buildings such as hospitals, hotels and office blocks. But plumbing is needed in more unusual settings too: for example, the marine industry has the need for plumbing and heating on boats and ships – explore what’s out there and find an area you’re passionate about.

The role will have problem solving throughout. To put this into perspective, it’s a bit like finding the correct jigsaw pieces once you’ve studied the picture before you start. This is why experience you gain will count for a lot.

Learning never stops in the life of a plumbing and heating engineer. Technologies are rapidly changing the way we live and work.

Reaping the rewards

There’s no doubt that if you work hard, you will reap the rewards. Wages are generally paid in relation to what you are able to do or bring in. Lots of people become self-employed and enjoy this way of life, but that’s not the only route. So many career opportunities await qualified plumbing and heating engineers. If you are professional, highly skilled and take pride in your work, then you have an exciting future.

Find out more

Find the CIPHE’s Apprenticeship Portal in the Membership Services area of our main website.

Take inspiration from case studies of people in our industry, and find out about some of the varied roles available, here.

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